Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Comforts of Serbia's Police State

Police are out in force in Serbia, and it seems to make many people feel better. Citizens are urged to spy on their neighbours and stay vigilant for "suspicious" activities. Most are happy to help.
By Srdjan Staletovic

The tenants of Block 70 have a new duty. They must watch their neighbours, check for strange cars in the car park, track the comings and goings of strangers and above all--if they should come across an ethnic Albanian--call the police right away.


The municipal authorities who run Block 70, and the scores of grey apartment complexes like it in the urban suburb of Novi Belgrade, want residents to report on old and new ethnic Albanian neighbours in a new war on "terrorism". They want residents' lists checked, strangers challenged and suspicious gatherings in their neighbourhood promptly reported.


Citing the 300 or more who died in Russian apartment bombings last month, the Novi Belgrade city authorities also want residents to watch for fake car licence plates, check visitors, even to keep an eye on the contents of their rubbish bins, "in case something is planted" by "Albanian terrorists".


The municipal memo, dated September 29, is aimed at turning the people into citizen-policemen, vigilant 24 hours a day to ensure "the prevention of terrorist actions like those in Russia".


Its combined call to target ethnic minorities while spying on your neighbour might seem to mix the worst of communist and post-communist Yugoslav state mentalities. But as one of the Novi Belgrade officials behind the document put it, "We live in nasty times."


The officials have no difficulty in finding willing neighbourhood spies. The neighbourhood retains its old communist-era name, "Brotherhood and Unity", and has a high population of retired soldiers and state clerks who stand by the regime of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic.


This is the district which, according to state TV, sent telegrams of support praising the "wise and consistent policy of President Milosevic"--three times--during the NATO air war. These were the residents who sent a joint telegram condemning the opposition, now in the midst of a nationwide programme of peaceful anti-regime street protests, for the "rampage in the streets of Belgrade".


Unknown men carrying clubs and pistols attacked a group of 100 peaceful opposition protestors in Novi Belgrade on Tuesday night. One demonstrator was hospitalised.


But when activist members of the opposition Social Democracy party headed by former general Vuk Obradovic tracked the gangs behind the attacks on demonstrators, they turned out to be plain-clothed policemen. Operating in organised groups from two to four, they were given away by the distinctive clicking emitted by their police radios--the trademark Motorolas--when the volume switches are turned down.


Police have been turning the screw for weeks. In late September they announced plans to call on homes door-to-door, checking the validity of residents' documents and whether the addresses given on the papers matched the addresses where the holders lived.


According to an aide to the Minister of Interior Affairs, Gen. Lieut.-Col. Obrad Stevanovic, the aim is to "improve the citizens' security" and allow citizens to "more efficiently realise their rights." The intention is also, he said, for citizens and police to "exchange data important for the general security."


One senior officer described the plan as "an excellent opportunity for citizens to get to know their local policemen."


Hundreds of citizens thronged city offices, courts and police stations to have their papers brought up to date. A clerk at the police station in the Belgrade municipality of Palilula said the crowd was the biggest she had seen in 23 years of working there.


"These people are crazy," she said. "They are prepared to wait for even three and a half hours, only to have a new address recorded in their ID cards."


Yet the police do not appear to have started the programme. Not a single case of a policeman calling on a home to check addresses on papers has been reported to the media since the programme allegedly began on September 27. Nevertheless, police told the Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti on September 29 that the action was "proceeding without problems".


But tens of thousands of men of military age in Serbia, especially in Belgrade, have received slips from military district officials summoning them to their offices to have their home addresses checked.


A Defence Ministry source told Balkan Crisis Report that the Serbian interior ministry (MUP) has passed on its lists of citizens to the defence ministry so it can speed up its own new census of citizens suitable for military service.


"It is hard to tell what the goal of this action is, but I know that it was given a high priority," the source said. As a result the queues outside the military district offices in Belgrade's six districts lengthen daily.


Meanwhile the police have stepped up street controls in the last two months, as traffic police tirelessly check places of car purchase, state of lamps and spare tyres. They are diligently removing illegally parked cars and imposing spot fines on pedestrians who dare to cross the street away from proper crossings.


One driver taking the 185-kilometre journey on the Ibar Highway between Belgrade and central Serbia--a trip that normally would take two and a half hours--took four hours to do the journey. He was stopped by police 12 separate times on the way.


MUP special police squads have augmented local highway police. In military-style fatigues and toting automatic rifles, they patrol the main roads in high-powered Japanese-made jeeps. One observer saw one such patrol make nine stop-and-search checks and one arrest in just 30 minutes.


Many people welcome this increased attention. "It's good that someone is looking after us," said one man.


"Who knows what kind of things can enter from Kosovo," said another.


"When I see them work, I sleep better," said a third, in a view shared by many.


Even the criminals don't seem to mind. The men and women who run the national smuggling network that sprang up in response to the imposition of UN sanctions on Yugoslavia are--in the words of that senior Belgrade police officer--also "getting to know their local policemen."


And the relationship is proving beneficial to both.


"I first started to give a cut to the police patrols," said one young smuggler. "Then I ended up with a police inspector who took a cut. Eventually I became 'their guy'. I disclose new smuggling routes and they don't touch me in return. What can you do? Better to be with them than against them."


Srdjan Staletovic is a regular IWPR correspondent in Belgrade.